Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tamiami Trail & Everglades National Park

The Tamiami Trail is the name of the route, mostly US 41 from Tampa to Miami, hence the name, Tamiami.  Locally, the name is pronounced, “Tammy Yammy” Trail.  No matter where we are in South Florida, we find ourselves driving the Tamiami Trail to the Everglades.  From the west end of Rt. 41 the Everglades City part of the glades is closest but from the Miami area, the Flamingo area with the Anhinga Trail and more popular areas of the Everglades are closer.
The list below provides a set of mile markers for our favorite stops on the Tamiami Trail:
Far less visited than the more popular Everglades NP areas near Miami, the areas near Everglades City have a lot to see and do.  The visitor center has a knowledgeable staff and a gift shop.  A couple of boat trips are available from the gift shop including the 10,000 Islands tour and the Mangrove Wilderness tour.  We took the 10,000 Islands tour when we were there in 2013.  This is a large boat that accommodates 20 or more visitors and goes through areas of the park that are more open water.  The Mangrove Wilderness tour that we took in 2016 is on a much small boat that seats only 6 visitors and goes into the mangrove areas up the streams.
This visitor center has a nice interpretative display and a small boardwalk where we have seen a manatee every time we have visited.  The roads behind the visitor center offer a number of trails for sightseeing.
Mile Marker 72 – Ochopee Post Office
This former storage shed is the smallest US Post Office in the US. 
Mile Marker 70 – H. D. Williams Wayside Park
This small roadside park is perpendicular to the Tamiami Trail and follows Turner Road for a short distance.  The boardwalk is along a Turner River Canal that contains alligators and many bird.  The parking area is usually very busy for this popular stop.
Mile Marker 59 – Loop Road Intersection with the Tamiami Trail
We were not familiar with this loop road until we were there in 2016 but it is by far one of our favorite Florida locations now when it comes to wildlife viewing.  This paved and gravel road is not well traveled with many visitors to the area unaware of the road.  We were able to get very close to many alligators, birds, turtles and even a water moccasin snake.  The 24 mile loop goes from mile marker 59 to about mile marker 40 of the Tamiami Trail.
If you take the Loop Road you will miss the Oasis Visitor Center.  However, doubling back or visiting on the return trip is advised.  This visitor center has more amenities than many in on the Tamiami Trail including good restrooms and a boardwalk that parallels Rt. 41.  There are usually naturalists on the boardwalk pointing attractions out to visitors.  We have seen many alligators, birds, turtles and invasive walking catfish in the water there.  A trail from the visitor center goes out through the area.
Mile Marker 40 - Loop Road Intersection with the Tamiami Trail
Entering the Everglades National Park at the Shark Valley or the two visitor centers south of Miami (Ernest Coe and Flamingo) costs visitors $20 for a seven day pass.  Of course a National Park Annual Pass works as well.  The highlight feature of the Shark Valley area is the 15 mile loop trail.  Although we have never walked to the end of the trail, there is an observation tower that provides a breathtaking view of the Everglades.  Visitors can rent bicycles or ride the tram around the 15 mile loop trail.  In 2016 we walked over 2.5 miles out the trail before we turned around and came back,  When we were there in 2013 we saw a great deal of bird life as well as many alligators in the first half mile of the trail.  On our 2016 trip while we saw a number of birds and a good many alligators, it was far short of what we saw three years earlier. 
This is the first of two visitor centers in Everglades National Park in the area south of Miami.  This visitor center is near the park entrance and gets far more visitors than the other park visitor centers.  There are many rangers and naturalists to answer questions as well as gift shops.  The very popular Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail are nearby. Many trails depart from near the visitor center as well as the road to Flamingo that has a number of pull offs and trailheads for sightseers and hikers.

This visitor center is at the end of the road in the east part of the Everglades.  There are many naturalists and rangers pointing out wildlife and sights.  There is a marina and boat trips available out into the park.  During our visit there in 2013 we were fortunate to see both American alligators as well as American crocodiles.  This is one of the few places where both species coexist.  There are several osprey nests that often have young when we are there.  We have also seen manatees and many species of birds.  Between the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and the Flamingo Visitor Center there are many places to stop for hikes, birding or photography.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tarpon Springs

We took advantage of a relaxing day and hung out in the room at the Wyndham Garden Fort Myers Beach until after 8 am.  I went to the lobby to print our boarding passes for Thursday while Mary finished packing.  The Wyndham was a good choice for us since Fort Myers Beach is well situated for access to many of the places we planned to visit.  It didn’t hurt that we got the room free for the week using some of our points.
We drove north across the Tampa Bay Bridge on I-275 up to Tarpon Springs.  The area is well known for the sponge divers of Greek ancestry who dive for bath sponges.  While there is still a great deal of sponge diving, the town of Tarpon Springs is mostly a kitschy tourist trap.  There are many gift and T-shirt shops along the strand that is the sponge dock.  There are also a number of well rated Greek restaurants.  According to Trip Advisor the best is Hellas Greek Restaurant.  We were very impressed with the service and appearance of the restaurant.  Mary had the combination platter that included a gyro, moussaka, pastitsio and dolmades.  I had a combo that included a Spanakopita and a Tiropita. We both had some great Greek style green beans, rice and a seasoned wedge of boiled potato.  We swapped half of each other’s meals and enjoyed everything.  Although the restaurant had an excellent Greek bakery, we couldn’t think about another bite so we browsed the offerings and moved on.  Other than our usual lunch of peanut butter and crackers and our cold cereal breakfasts, this our only meal of the trip that didn’t swim or crawl in the ocean.
We walked around Dodecanese Street and the wharf for an hour or so looking in at the shops, museums, displays and other attractions.  Many places had locally collected sponges and shells for sale but we weren’t interested in anything.  We picked up a brochure on some of the cruises that go out of Tarpon Springs for wildlife viewing and dolphin viewing.  Although we weren’t interested in a boat ride for this trip we thought it might be something that would interest Ian and Emily when they are in the area this spring.  Since the boats go into some of the rivers and estuaries they are likely to see some many shore birds.  The boats also go into the Gulf of Mexico they typically see dolphins. 
Since we were both tired after a very active week of sightseeing and travel, we decided to make our way to the Ramada Clearwater Airport and crash for a bit.  The hotel is just a stone’s throw from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport (PIE) which will be great for our early flight back home tomorrow morning.  The room was fine, fairly typical of airport hotels.  There was a microwave and refrigerator as well as a large bed.  Since we were just a few yards from the airport, we could hear the jets landing and taking off but that ended after about 7 pm and the room was quiet. 
We spent most of the afternoon relaxing in the room. Around 7 pm we made a run to a nearby Publix to get breakfast and to top off the gas tank of the rental Toyota Corolla before we returned it to Enterprise on Thursday morning.  We had put nearly 2000 miles on the car this week and we were both very happy with the car’s performance and fuel economy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Painted buntings at a feeder
We both had some things to do in the morning so we awoke at 6 am then did some things in the room and left at 8 am following our Kashi breakfast.  We drove to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  We arrived a little after 9 am and paid the $28 fee for our admission then signed up for a guided tour at 10:30.  Our guide, Phil, a retiree from Athens, Ohio, was a knowledgeable and capable guide.  He gave us an overview of the area as well as the variety of plants and animals that inhabit the 17 square miles of the sanctuary.  We walked along part of the nearly 2.3 mile board walk with visitors from New York, New Jersey, Seattle and Kentucky.  Phil pointed out all of the birds that we saw and shared a lot of information about the history of the area.  After we completed the tour around 12:30, we returned to the car and had our normal travel lunch of peanut butter, crackers, apples and carrots. 
Red and grey lichens
We went back to walk the entire trail including the parts that were not on Phil’s tour.  There are some huge cypress trees in the swamp some of which had strangler figs growing on them.  We saw many epiphytic bromiliads growing on branches as well as many varieties of lichens.  We were amazed by the tiny floating ferns that we thought were duckweed plants, there were also resurrection ferns that appear dead until the wet season when they rejuvenate.  There were also strap ferns and leather ferns that grew in profusion in the swamp. 
Along the way we saw a number of song birds including painted buntings, gnatcatchers, phoebes, black and yellow crowned night herons, ibis, grebes and many others.  One small adult alligator was seen but we did not see her babies.  We saw a raccoon foraging for food in the swamp and a small frog swimming on the surface.  A cottonmouth water moccasin was sunning in some plant matter not far from the boardwalk.  Probably the highlight of the trip caught us quite by surprise.  As we were back on the road leaving the area, we saw a large cat running across the highway.  It took us some time to realize that we had seen a Florida Panther!  
There are only about 80-100 panthers still alive and we saw one today.  Most people in the area have never seen a Florida Panther.  These cats are the same species as a puma, cougar or mountain lion but inhabit the Everglades area of Florida.  The population is sharply down because of habitat encroachment and deaths on the highways.
When we left the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary we drove to Marco Island to meet our friends, B. J. and Diana Johnson.  The Johnsons are here spending a few days before leaving on a 20 day cruise throughout much of the Caribbean.  Their condo is very nice and convenient to many interesting areas.  They told us about one of their favorite restaurants on Marco Island, Snook Inn.  
Cypress tree with strangler fig
We all decided to go there for dinner.  We had a boiled shrimp appetizer.  B. J. and Diana had a large lunch so only had a bowl of conch chowder Mary had broiled grouper stuffed with crab.  One fillet had a dill sauce and the other had hollandaise.  I had a broiled seafood combo platter that had Mahi Mahi, grouper, crab, three scallops and three shrimp. Mary and I both had a baked sweet potato and a small salad.  We were very happy with our meals.  The quality of the food and service were both very good.  We really enjoyed chatting with the Johnsons.  They have been our good friends for over 35 years and we enjoy seeing them only regretting that we don’t get with them more often. 
We drove back to our hotel through Naples.  We were aware that Naples has an overall very high income.  The size and quality of homes is an indication of the resources of the residents.  Another indicator is the number of golf courses in the Naples area.  The flat sandy land, the warm climate and the high income people in the area who golf creates a need for the many links in the Naples area.  One thing that did surprise us is the cars in the area.  In driving in and through Naples during our trips to the Everglades or to Marco Island we have seen Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis not to mention the BMWs, Mercedes, Lexis and other luxury cars.
We plan to leave the Wyndham Garden Fort Myers Beach tomorrow morning and drive to the Tampa area where we will visit some local attractions then check into our hotel near the airport where we can get to the terminal at PIE in time for our Thursday morning flight.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Flamingo and Anhinga Trail

We woke at our usual early hour this morning although neither of us slept exceptionally well on Sunday night because we hadn’t set the air conditional cool enough.  It sounds odd to want the air conditioning cranked up in mid-January but with the heat that we have been having here on the southern Gulf Coast of Florida, the air conditioning feel pretty good at night.
We got on the road by 7:15 am after a breakfast of Kashi cereal and bananas since we were out of Wheat Chex.  We headed south down I-75 to visit the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.  However, we could find no visitor center for the area.  A very large area was enclosed to provide a safe area for the breeding population of the Florida variety of pumas in the area.  Although there was no visitor center, we did find an informational kiosk at the trailhead for a hiking trail around the refuge.  Brochures and signage informed visitors of the status of Florida panthers and how the facility seeks to protect the remaining population.
We headed southeast on Rt. 41 stopping at the Ochapee, Florida Post Office to mail birthday cards to Robert and Michael Whittington and Greg Koehler.  The Ochapee Post Office is in a building that appears to be about 4 by 6 feet and is reported to be the smallest in the US.  We had passed it several times and were glad to have a reason to stop. 
We drove a little further to the Oasis Visitor Center on Rt. 41 where a boardwalk provides a view of alligators, wading birds and fish in the canal.  Since we were there fairly early, there were few alligators out because the temperature was still in the low 70s.  I guess we shouldn’t complain about the 70s when the temperatures back home are at zero with the wind chill and light snow is in the forecast.  We are perfectly happy with the 70s!
We continued southeast on Rt. 41 until we got to Rt. 997 toward Homestead.  This is one of my least favorite roads since it is 20 miles of very congested two lane road.  There is a lot of traffic going to the Coe entrance to Everglades National Park many of whom are from out of state and out of the US.  In addition, there are many trucks and tractors serving the large agricultural areas along Rt. 997 near Homestead and Florida City.  Because there is so much traffic on the highway no passing is permitted at any point on the road.  It would just not be safe to allow passing on this busy road.
We passed fields of tomatoes, beans, squash, papaya and many other fruits and vegetables.  We also passed the famous Robert is Here fruit stand.  We arrived at the entrance to Everglades National Park around 11 am and used our receipt from our entrance to Shark Valley to get us in to the park with no additional charge.  We started our visit at the Anhinga Trail and covered our rental car with one of the tarps provided by the Park Service.  Since the resident black vultures will eat the rubber wipers and moldings from parked cars, the Park Service recommends covering cars to discourage the birds.
A large group of elementary school children were at the Anhinga Trail while we were there as well as a van tour of senior citizens.  We were surprised at the lack of wildlife along the trail.  When we were here on January 31, 2013 there were many more birds and alligators.  We speculate that el Nino is keeping the coastal areas warmer and not driving the birds inland at this time.  As with other visits to the area, we saw many tourists from Europe and Asia visiting the Everglades.  After our walk around the boardwalk at the Anhinga Trail, we returned to our rental car with the rubber parts intact and had a lunch of peanut butter and crackers as well as sesame sticks and mini carrots as we drove to other trails and viewing areas in the National Park. 
We stopped at most of the attractions and walked around the interpretative trails.  We finished the trip at Flamingo where the Everglades meets the ocean.  This area has both American alligators and crocodiles but we saw neither while we were there this year.  We saw both alligators and crocodiles there in 2013.  A ranger was pointing out a manatee in the marina area and several ospreys were in the area including several on nests.
After spending some time looking around in Flamingo we started back toward our room in Fort Myers.  We knew that the drive north on Rt. 997 wouldn’t be fun but we were anxious to get back.  Along Rt. 41 we had to slow down at several places since the speed limit is lowered from 60 to 45 after dark to protect panthers than may be crossing the highway after dark.  We were disappointed to not see any panthers.
We stopped in Bonita Beach for dinner around 7 pm at a place called Big Hickory Seafood Grill House and Marina because it is on Big Hickory Pass on the north end of the island.  Mary had fish tacos made with locally caught grouper that had a key lime aioli and slices of avocado.  I had a grouper sandwich.  We both thought our meals were very good, the service was excellent and the prices reasonable. 

We returned to the Wyndham Garden Fort Myers Beach.  We hope to get together with our friends, the Johnson, tomorrow at Marco Island.  We head back toward St. Pete on Wednesday.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sanibel and Captiva Islands

We were awake at our usual early morning hour and had the last of the Wheat Chex and tea for breakfast.  We left the room around 8 am and drove up through Sanibel and Captiva Islands.  We paid the $6 toll to cross the causeway and bridge to the islands and drove along the only main road through the islands.  These islands are definitely a high rent district with many homes and vacation properties selling for $10 million and above.  We started by visiting the lighthouse on the end of Sanibel Island.  This lighthouse doesn’t look like any lighthouse that one would expect on the Atlantic Coast but was a metal structure on a metal tower.  It was somewhat reminiscent of a free standing tree stand that hunters use to hunt deer.  There were some historical markers and trails through the area. 
From the lighthouse, we drove along the main road through the high end properties to the J. N. “Ding” Darling Nature Preserve.  The visitor center has great displays of many of the common plants and animals.  While we were in the visitor center, a major rain storm hit the area.  We decided that we would spend additional time enjoying the displays in the visitor center until the rain slowed or stopped.  Since there had been so much rain we didn’t choose to take the self-guided driving tour through the nature preserve.  We had to laugh at the variety of animal crossing signs that we have seen here so far.  Of course we saw deer crossing but we have also seen alligator, eagle, panther, gopher tortoise, owl and bear crossing signs.  Ding Darling was a local cartoonist who had work published in major newspapers and magazines but whose passion was conservation.  Darling’s work in conservation has been honored by many national and international groups.
After leaving the Darling Nature Preserve, we continued driving through Sanibel Island to Captiva Island which is much smaller than Sanibel.  Captiva is mostly private high end property so we drove across the island and headed back toward the mainland.  
We stopped for a quick lunch in Fort Myers then drove to the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  We didn’t tour either home but looked around the neighborhood and grounds.  We were impressed with the huge banyan tree that Edison planted as a sapling in 1927 that is now a huge cluster of trees. 
We drove to the Lee County Manatee Park that is adjacent to a power plant.  When the bay cools below 68 degrees, the manatees come into the river where the water warmed by the power plants attracts them.  Because el Nino has allowed the bay to remain at 70 degrees there were few manatees in the stream near the viewing area.  We probably saw about 20 in the river.  As much as the manatees, we enjoyed the signage for the plants around the viewing area.  There is also an ethnobotany trail where plants are marked with signs indicating the current and historical value of selected plants to human activity. 
We drove back to our room at the Wyndham Garden Inn at Fort Myers Beach then walked north along the beach.  The heavy rain of the day had compacted the sand and left a good deal of standing water along and near the beach.  We walked about 1.5 miles before turning back and returning to our room.  I went out again as the sun was going down to take some snapshots of sunset from an area not far from our hotel at the remains of a burnt pier just south of the hotel.
We went to dinner at the hotel restaurant, Pinchers, which specializes in local seafood.  Mary had the grilled shrimp with local green beans and garlic bread.  I had crab cakes from local Gulf blue crabs with fries and cole slaw on the side.  We each had a margarita since the happy hour price was two for one.  We both enjoyed our meals and thought the service was very good.  Probably the best part was the we didn’t have to drive back after dinner since our room was just a short walk away.

If the weather cooperates we plan to go to the Anhinga Trail tomorrow over on the east side of the Everglades. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Lake Okeechobee

Wood stork, rosette spoonbill and great white egret
We both slept well and got up around 6:30 which is sleeping late by our standards.  We had our Wheat Chex and banana for breakfast along with a cup of tea then walked south on the beach for nearly two miles.  There was pretty heavy fog coming in from the Gulf but the temperature even at 7 am was in the mid 70s.  We were fortunate to be walking at low tide since there were many sea animals stranded on the beach and many birds there to take advantage of the opportunity.  In our walk we saw a number of wading shore birds, gulls and terns, most of which we cannot identify.  We saw more rosette spoonbills, great white egrets and another wood stork that we understand are not common birds to see. We also saw a number of sea shells some of which still had the animal mollusk alive inside. 
Quite a few sponges and coral washed up on the sand.  These were all shapes, sizes and colors.  We came upon several blue crabs that didn’t appreciate our attentions.  They were pretty funny.  We saw several beach objects that we couldn’t identify, probably disfigured driftwood but it looked neat.  As we walked we saw quite a few senior citizens out gathering shells.  Although we know that some were people just looking for some pretty shells, we suspect that most were collecting the shells to sell at some of the local tourist traps or for decorating, crafts or aquaria.  The width of the beach changes a great deal along our walk.  Right at our hotel the beach is at least 300 yards wide while a half mile south the mangroves grow nearly to the low water line.  In fact, on our walk back north to the hotel we had to walk up through the mangroves in a couple of places since the tide had started to come in.
By the time we returned to the room the fog had started lift and we were ready to take a drive east to Lake Okeechobee.  Neither of us had ever been to Lake Okeechobee but it sounded interesting.  The lake covers an area that is half the size of the state of Rhode Island and we knew very little about it so we decided to check it out.  The two hour drive to the lake was pretty taking us through some citrus groves and other agricultural areas.  We especially enjoyed the area around Clewiston and surrounding Lake Okeechobee where sugar cane is grown.  There are huge fields of cane along with a refinery.
When we got to Lake Okeechobee we learned why there isn’t much information regarding things to do there – there aren’t many things to do there!  The lake is only about 9 feet deep in most places except for a channel that has been dredged around the lake’s perimeter. 
There is very little recreational boating and limited fishing in most areas of the lake.  There is a walking and bicycling trail around the lake on top of the levee but, other than a few access points, the lake is not even visible from a car.  We stopped for our lunch of crunchy peanut butter and crackers at the John Stretch Rest Area next to the levee in Lake Harbor then drove on around to some places where we could walk up to the levee top to see the lake.  Probably the best view was from the locks where boats can enter the lake from one of the rivers that originate at the lake. 
We followed the road around the lake until we reached the town of Okeechobee then, since it was 4 pm, we decided that we should start back toward the hotel.  Although rain was forecast for the afternoon we had some clouds but an otherwise beautiful day in the low 80s.  As we went through the towns of LaBelle and Alva we saw a good bit of lightning, but we were dry.
We stopped for dinner at the Fish Monger Restaurant located just before crossing the bridge onto Ft. Myers Beach island.  There was live music from a older guy with a curly mullet on the keyboard and a similarly aged lady singing and playing things that she could shake like a tambourine and maracas.  They were playing classic rock from the early 70s that would appeal to the majority of the clientele that would be between 5 and 10 years older than us.  Mary had the local snapper topped with crab and included sides of twice baked potato and sautéed garlic spinach with caramelized onion.  I had the local cobia that was blackened and served on a bed of jalapeno garlic grits with a side of sautéed mushroom buttons.  We both enjoyed our meals although the service was very slow.  Our waitress was serving us as well as a large party and she just wasn’t able to keep up.  For the price of our meal we expected better service.

We got back to the Wyndham Garden Ft. Myers by 7:30 and relaxed as we planned our day for Sunday. As we sat in the room we heard a heavy rain outside.  The local news reported that an EF 2 tornado touched down in Cape Coral and Fort Myers Shores which is one of the areas we had just come through.  A good deal of damage was done to homes and other property in the area.  We were happy to be in our room by the time the storm hit.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Everglades City and Shark Valley

After waking around 6:30 am we had a breakfast of the Wheat Chex and bananas as well as a couple of cups of tea.  We left the Wyndham Gardens Fort Myers Beach before 8 am and headed south through Naples to Everglades City and Everglades National Park.  We purchased a pass on a guided boat tour through the mangrove areas in the estuarine areas nearby.  We were the only passengers for our young captain, Parker, who was very knowledgeable of the birds, wildlife and ecology of the area.  In our 90 minute tour we saw a number of local birds including kingfishers, great blue herons, little blue herons, green herons, great white herons, yellow crested night herons, white ibis, rosette spoonbills, brown pelicans, cormorants and anhingas among many other small wading birds. 
We took the boat into an area called a mangrove tunnel where the white, red and black mangroves grow over the river channel to form a tunnel effect.  We saw a number of alligators, turtles, fish, fiddler and mangrove crabs back in the mangrove tunnel.  The only negative was that the mosquitos were voracious back in the mangroves.  We both came away covered with bites so Mary bought a bottle of 98% deet when we got back to the dock.  We drove around a bit in the Everglades City area then started east on Rt. 41 through the Everglades.  We had a lunch of peanut butter and crackers as we drove. Although much of the day was a bit overcast, the temperature was in the low 80s.    
In the mangrove tunnel
We saw a loop road that parallels Rt. 41 through the Everglades so we took the narrow gravel road for 24 miles.  Along this road we saw a great deal of wildlife including a huge variety of birds, many alligators, soft shelled turtles an even a cottonmouth water moccasin.  The water moccasin was in the road and we were afraid that someone would run her over with a car so I blocked the road with our car and put her over to into the wetland where she would be safe.  There were few cars on the road but I wanted to make sure that she didn’t get killed.  We spent a lot of time on this road since there were many places where we could look for wildlife.  We saw two wood storks that we hadn’t seen this year.
Continuing back on Rt. 41, we made a brief stop at the rest area where we walked the boardwalk and saw a few anhingas and three alligators.  We stopped at the Big Cypress Visitor Center for a brief walk to the viewing area where we saw one manatee behind the visitor center.
Continuing east on Rt. 41, we drove to the Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park.  We paid the $20 fee for a seven day National Park pass as we waited for a parking area to open.  The ranger only lets additional visitors into the area when a car leaves to assure that adequate parking is available.  We decided to walk some of the Shark Valley Loop Trail which is a very level paved trail. 
A female anhinga dries her wings
During the first half mile of the trail we saw many birds and lots of alligators some of which were very close, some even lying on the trail.  We saw large adult alligators as well as a clutch of newly hatched babies and everything in between.  We saw most of the birds that we had seen earlier but we also saw a purple ganinule that is one of the prettiest birds in the area.  We had walked out the loop for over 2.5 miles before we discovered that the trail is a loop that is over 15 miles in length.  Since it was after 4:30 by then we decided to start back toward the car.  It was just as well since we saw nothing new after the first half mile or so of the trail.  Most of the trail was many of the same birds and fewer alligators than in the first part of the trail. 
A large alligator sunning
When we return to the area we will walk the first half mile and some of the short side trails but skip the remainder of the trail.  It is a great place to walk or bicycle but we felt that we had walked plenty by the time we returned to the car after our 5 to 6 mile walk.  A two hour tram ride around the loop is available for $24 which isn’t bad but you can’t get out and see things as you like.  Bicycles are also available to rent and we saw many European and Asian visitors riding out the trail.
We left the Shark Valley Trail Loop area of Everglades National Park a little after 5 pm and drove back west on Rt. 41 to Everglades City. 
A clutch of baby alligators
We went to dinner at City Seafood that was recommended to us by Captain Parker from our morning boat ride.  It is a very casual places that caters to locals and boaters.  The freshly cooked meals are “baskets” that come in the paper boats.  We both had the fish basket which is made with locally caught grouper and included black bean salad, very good cole slaw that may have included Granny Smith apples, a generous portion of French fries and lots of fried grouper.  We both enjoyed our meals.
After dinner we drove back to the Wyndham Garden Fort Myers Beach but going through Naples and Bonita Beach.  It took a little longer but allowed us to see some different places.  We got back to our room a little after 8:30 pm and crashed after quick showers.  Since our room keys didn’t work when we got to the room, I ran to the office to get them reprogrammed.  The hotel restaurant/bar, Pinchers, has live music a lot of nights.  The band was playing all classic rock, mostly from the 60s and sounded OK although we were happy that our rooms were on the other side of the hotel.  It just cracked me up that the old geezers (a little older than me) were out in their Bob Seeger and Jimmy Buffett (sorry, I fell asleep between Jimmy and Buffett) T-shirts and rocking out.  The party animals tired out by 9 pm and the place quieted down.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Arrival on Florida's Gulf Coast

Unlike previous trips we did not have to leave home at the crack of dawn.  We slept in until nearly 7 am and finished preparing the house for us to be away for a week.  We always look forward to our January visit to Florida.  Escaping the West Virginia cold weather is great but just getting away is good as well.
We arrived at TriState Airport a little after 8:30 and went through security easily.  We saw a number of friends and acquaintances while we were in the airport and the time passed quickly until our 10 am departure.  We were fortunate that the flight wasn’t full and that I could move to the same row as Mary.  We even had an empty seat between us.  Before the fees and taxes, our Allegiant flight to Florida cost $32 and our shared checked bag was an additional $25 even though we were a little over the 40 pound weight limit.
We arrived at the St. Pete/Clearwater Airport a little after noon. 
Mary at Fort Myers Beach
Mary picked up our bag while I went to the nearby Enterprise desk to pick up our rental car.  We were pleased to get a 2016 Toyota Corolla Sport.  We started south and stopped for lunch along I-75 for a Subway sandwich then continued on our way.  We made it to the Wyndham Garden Inn at Ft. Myers Beach by 4 pm and got checked into our first floor room which is very nice.  Our room is just steps from the beach.  We have a fairly large refrigerator, a microwave and a comfortable king sized bed.  After we unpacked a little we walked north along the beach for about an hour.  We were surprised at how fine and soft the white sand is here.  It is like walking in talcum powder.  There were few people at the beach while we were walking but several groups were playing, digging in the sand or just relaxing.  Since the temperature was in the upper 70s, the walk along the beach was very nice.  We came back to the room and cleaned up a little before dinner.
Snowy Egret
Mary checked TripAdvisor and some other review sites and found some promising places to eat.  After driving around a bit and getting the lay of the land on the island, we drove to the business district of the island and ate at Key Lime Conch Shack.  It is a counter that sells local seafood that is prepared to order.  Mary had coconut shrimp and I had fried shrimp then we both had a personal key lime pie.  We were both pleased with our meals as well as the care by the people working at the counter.  We ate in the small outdoor area but many people take their meals with them as carry out.
On our way back to the room, we stopped at the Publix grocery store and picked up breakfast items (Wheat Chex, milk and bananas) and some travel snacks for the car.  We crashed in the room and planned travel for the rest of the week.